“Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
In today’s Psalm, Psalm 34, attributed to David, we are invited to join with the psalmist in glorifying God. David was in trouble, he cried out, and the Lord heard him and delivered him. Exultant over his dramatic escape from death, he sounds kind of like a Vancouverite commending their favourite sushi joint: “Taste and see” — you’ve got to try this out for yourself, it’s so good! See, the psalmist has already tasted deliverance and seen, and what he tasted and saw was amazing, worth sharing, worth erupting in gratitude and praise.
That’s what a good meal does, isn’t it? I remember one of the first times I ever ate slow-roasted lamb, the spicing was so rich and deep and savoury, and it was so good I wanted to cry. I suspect all of us have memories like that — a meal that left us speechless, slowing us down to enjoy the flavours of that one overwhelmingly glorious bite, leaving us wishing we really did have a hollow wooden leg attached to our stomach so we could just have a little… bit… more. A good meal is a visceral, sensual encounter with a Mystery, with something holy, and it leaves us in awe and wanting more.
Now I’m aware that I don’t come to you as an established spiritual leader or any such thing. Like Andrew who spoke to you last week, I’m not ordained either, though I am in the ordination discernment process. Rather, today I come to you as a farmer. As Peter mentioned, this year I’ve been partnering with the Maundy Café as they seek to be more intentional about the quality and sourcing of the food they serve. So as the Cathedral spends this month reflecting on A Table For All, on how our faith speaks to matters of hospitality, community, and food, Andrew invited me to share some of my thoughts.
As a farmer, I’ve spent a fair bit of time with food. Not just eating it, but planting it, watching it grow, discouraging pests like weeds and rats, tending to the soil and plants with water and nutrients — and attention, above all. Like eating, I find working on the farm to be an encounter with Mystery, in which I am constantly made aware that my efforts are only one small part of this glorious process, a big-l Life that I can’t control and can’t contain. I can only participate — however inadequately — and tend, patiently guiding the farm in its growth and flourishing.
Indeed, it strikes me that this experience isn’t so far off from what Job, in today’s reading, has just endured. Having lost everything of worth to him, Job has been in deep desolation. Despite the discouragement and lousy counsel of his friends, he has demanded a hearing from God. And for all that Job’s boldness might make us a tad uncomfortable, God isn’t fazed. In fact, God honours it and shows up. But instead of answering any of Job’s questions, God questions Job, leading him on a sort of “magical mystery tour” of creation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? (38:1) Have you commanded the morning? (38:12) Do you give the horse its might?” (39:19) God confronts Job with a world he doesn’t control, that he didn’t create and can’t sustain, a world chock full of things he does not understand, things too wonderful for him to know.
In the face of that, Job “despises” himself — or it could be translated “rejects” or “retracts.” Rather than continue pursuing his case in the court of the Almighty, Job takes it back and shuts up. This despising of himself is no act of self-hatred, which is really just as stuck on self as overweening pride. No, instead it’s as if Job’s hardened, isolating shell of despair and agony cracks open, and to his astonishment he is pulled out of himself, where he finds a world more glorious and mysterious than he could possibly imagine, and before which he is struck speechless.
If you pay attention, God’s world will do that to you. If you pay attention, food will do that to you. All the mysterious interplay of sun and heat and soil and water, of bees and flowers and pollination, of nitrogen and oxygen and carbon, of summer and winter and springtime and autumn, of hands that have sown and harvested and fed and raised and cooked and served, all leading up to the food resting on your plate — indeed, if you pay attention to food, it will leave you speechless.
But it is hard to pay attention. In fact, our modern food system thrives on the assumption that we won’t pay attention. It can get away with hiding from us the working conditions of the people who harvested the bananas I bought at the store last week. It can get away with bringing us carrots grown in soil depleted of nutrients and pumped full of fertilizer. It can get away with saturating low-income communities with high-carb, high-sugar, processed food products. It can get away with pushing sustainable scale farmers out of the market and to the brink of despair. It can get away with all this and more because it is assumed we are too busy and too apathetic to be anything more than consumers.
And all too often, the power brokers of today’s food empire are right. Running from one thing to another, food does become little more than fuel — a means to help us continue to function efficiently and productively, like machines, getting us from point A to point B. Slowly and insidiously, the story of industrial consumerism saturates our lives and bodies. And so we mine oil for fuel to make pesticides that fuel the land that fuels the plants that fuel our lives, as we burn ourselves out like fuel for an economic system driving madly toward the precipice of ecological collapse.
And yet — here we are, gathered here this Sunday morning, amid all the dehumanizing forces, the hurry and the restlessness that pervade our lives. We are gathered here, among other reasons, to pay attention to a meal. It’s a ceremonial meal; it won’t fill up your stomach. But if we let it, it will do the same thing to us as a good meal: it will leave us speechless.
But not without attention. And so we don’t just go straight into the Eucharist. No, we read Scripture, we sing, we pray, we pass the peace — all to remind ourselves of the Story of the meal and that that Story lives on in us, through us. We recount the manifold works of God, from creation through the patriarchs and matriarchs, through the people of Israel, the poets and the prophets, until we get to Jesus, the One who offers himself as the culmination of that story, the one to whom it all leads.
And then, we eat. We remember his body, broken for us, his blood spilled for us. We remember how, just as the deaths of countless fellow creatures, plant and animal, sustain our mortal lives, so the death of the Eternal God-become-creature sustains us for eternal life. Like Job, we allow God to crack open our shells of isolation and despair by coming to us as the crucified One, suffering with us, yet whose broken body is also a judgement and living question to every pretense of control we seek to claim over one another and the Earth. We eat, and the life of Christ becomes part of us, as we are joined together in Christ with people so very different and yet so similar to ourselves. And then we go back in to the world, full of Christ, as he lives and loves and serves through our bodies.
Friends, this is truly a holy meal, a mystery. But within this meal lie the seeds to make every meal holy. When agribusinesses, food marketers, and fast food chains present to us food products without a story, pre-packaged, freeze-dried, shipped from who knows where, our eating is slowly but surely stripped of its sacredness. It becomes a sterile, one-sided transaction, all take, reducing our eating to dollar signs and plastic wrap.
But here in the Eucharist, we are shown what a good meal looks like. A good meal has a story, but not just any story. It’s a story of healing, a story of land tended respectfully, of workers who are treated fairly, of diverse people caring for one another in community, and above all, of responsibility and gratitude to the Creator and innumerable creatures upon whom our lives depend. It’s a story that gets more flavourful the more you are empowered to participate in it, whether growing and harvesting, cooking and preparing, or simply sharing it with others. It’s this sort of meal and this sort of story the Maundy Café is seeking to live into, but it’s this sort of meal and this sort of story we’re invited to fight for and celebrate at every table in our homes, our neighbourhoods, and our city.
In closing, I want to share some words from my friend Eduardo Sasso, from his recently published book, A Climate of Desire. Sasso, who I know through my time in faith-based organizing for climate justice and who has been reflecting on food for a long time, sums up well all that I’ve been trying to say. He says:
“If we see it as a gift (as it has been seen for millennia), the eyes of gratitude can once again reveal the sacredness of food. Besides the water we drink and the air we breathe, food is our most intimate bond with the rest of the created world… Food goes “in” us; it becomes part of us. And that’s why when we give proper consideration to where our food comes from (who grew it, under what conditions) our tables have the potential for becoming a place of bonding and communion between us humans, our living source, the creatures and the land that sustain us.” (100)
Indeed, were we to eat like that, the whole world might “taste and see that the Lord is good.”